Ambassador for the Australian mentality
During the recent election campaign, any significant attention to our place in the world and foreign policy was lost amongst the cacophony of discussion of the environment, climate change, the economy, broadband internet and Speedos.
With the exception of the boat people drama, both major parties seemed strangely silent on the topic of Australia’s interaction with the outside world. ‘Moving Australia Forward’ probably didn’t extend to dumping the entire country somewhere in the North Atlantic, but that’s about as much attention as it got.
Tony Abbott has voiced what many Australians feel is the truth – that we are part of the Anglosphere, due to our dominant culture and heritage. While we still have a lot to gain from these ‘old world’ ties, the fact is that they should be ‘old world’ for a reason: they’re part of the past, and much of our future will be tied in with the co-operation of our immediate neighbours in South East Asia and the South West Pacific.
Richard Woolcott is one of Australia’s longest serving diplomatic officials, and has worked with every prime minister since Sir Robert Menzies. He took the time to be interviewed and give his thoughts on Australia’s place in the world, the Australian mentality, and what a minority government will mean for our foreign relations.
What follows is an edited transcript.
Matt Smith (MS): Do you see Australia as being a member of the Asian community?
Richard Woolcott (RW): There’s no doubt that geographically, we are part of South East Asia and the South West Pacific. Some of our historical background is closely linked with the United Kingdom and I guess our major security alliance is with the United States, but essentially we are in this part of the world.
MS: What about for the Australian mentality? Do we still retain closer ties to the western world?
RW: I don’t think so. I was rather disappointed that during the election campaign to hear the leader of the opposition to refer to Australia as part of the Anglosphere. I assume what he meant was a lot of Australians are descendent from the anglo-celts from the British Isles. Increasingly, more and more Australia were born overseas and outside the British Isles or immigrated from Asia and parts of Europe, so our population is changing I think that Anglosphere goes really back, a hundred years.
MS: What did you think of the election campaign? Was foreign affairs given enough attention?
RW: I thought it was very disappointing. Foreign affairs was not given attention by either side, I would have thought that major issues such as the conflict in Afghanistan, the whole idea of our place in the world. Also the handling of issues like refugees and boat people, I think the way that was handled can send the wrong message because, in a sense, both sides of politics were seeking to exploit fears and it’s just nonsense to say that we’re threatened by an armada of boats invading us from the north. I would have liked to see some serious discussion about major foreign policy issues that show where Australia belongs in the world.
MS: As it stands now we’re going to have a minority government. Do you think that will change the way we approach the Asian Pacific Region?
RW: Unfortunately I think it will, a minority government is going to be a risk averse government. It’s not going to want to look at major projects, and that’s unfortunate. But I would hope whoever becomes Prime Minister and foreign minister, once the election is behind them, will have a slightly more constructive involvement with the countries of our region.
MS: How did you get started in diplomacy?
RW: Well I don’t really know, I started life as a journalist actually, like you. I had a travelling scholarship and when the money ran out I was in London. I got a job with what was then the Melbourne Herald London office and I spent some time working as a journalist in London. One of the things I did was to interview the senior External Affairs representative in London and after a while he asked me if I would be interested in applying to join the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
MS: It’s fair to say that your career has been quite integral to the direction of Australia’s foreign policy affairs. What direction have you tried to guide the country in?
RW: One of the successful aspects was the development of APEC. I think in other ways one has to try to work on straight within Australia itself, and try and influence Australian attitudes so that we would be better understood. In some extent because of the old White Australia Policy Australia’s on sort of a good behaviour bond in the region, and it’s very important that perceptions of racism and religious intolerance and don’t build up. Most Australians are great believers in a fair go and equality of opportunity. It would be a pity if these perceptions of Australia were tarnished by what is a small minority.
Richard Woolcott served as an ambassador to numerous Asian countries, to the United Nations, and as President of the United Nations Security Council for Australia’s term in 1985. He was the Secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992, and helped establish the APEC forum. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985, and a Companion of the Order in 1993.
Richard Woolcott spoke at La Trobe University as a guest of the Centre for Dialogue.
You can read more from Matt Smith at his blog at The End of the Spectrum.
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